“The Age of Innocence”
Edith Wharton’s novel, “The Age of Innocence,” as superbly adapted for the stage by Douglas McGrath, is receiving a radiant, deeply heartbreaking production at Hartford Stage. As artfully presented on John Lee Beatty’s sumptuous set, this world premiere play seems to shimmer from beginning to end, led by Boyd Gaines’s brilliant portrayal, as both the narrator of the play and the character of “The Old Gentleman.”
He is perfectly matched by the exquisite performances of Sierra Boggess and the ardent, handsome Andrew Veenstra. Director Doug Hughes has staged “The Age of Innocence” beautifully, with a light touch and a good deal of feeling, and his entire cast excels. “The Age of Innocence” at Hartford Stage is most highly recommended, and don’t forget to bring some tissues with you, for you may need them.
Set in the late 1800s, and mostly taking place in New York, the audience is gradually introduced to the various characters, with Boyd Gaines adding explanations and anecdotes as they are being presented. First and foremost, in high society at that time, there were things that one could do socially, and keep a good standing in one’s life, and things that could doom a person to exclusion.
Such is the predicament of Sierra Boggess’s character Countess Ellen Olenska, a woman trying to obtain a divorce from her husband in Europe, and yet trying to reenter New York’s social world through her cousin May (the wonderful Helen Cespedes) and May’s fiancé, Newland Archer, played by Andrew Veenstra. It is actually the crux of this trio that gives the play its emotional center.
One would be loath to give much more of the plot away, for “The Age of Innocence” is filled with significant moments that are quite startling. Suffice it is to say, unrequited love is definitely featured in the story and it is the kind of emotion that can take one’s breath away. It also helps greatly that these three leading parts are portrayed so excellently.
Andrew Veenstra is just about ideal as Newland Archer, carrying himself with style and poise, but still managing to reveal what is going on underneath his outward façade. The play is mostly seen from his perspective and one closely follows the arc of his character. Just as good is Helen Cespedes, as Archer’s fiancé, May Welland. Helen is all gorgeous fashions (costumes designed by the astute Linda Cho) and impeccable manners of social grace, but, like her costar, she retains a striking clarity of judgement and understanding of exactly what is transpiring around her.
Also shining brightly is Sierra Boggess, as May’s cousin, Ellen. I have seen this performer to terrific effect in such musicals as “The Phantom of the Opera” and “It Shoulda Been You” and one of the highlights of the play is her opportunity to display her glittering soprano voice in the song “Beautiful Dreamer.” (It should be noted that there is a piano onstage throughout, played beautifully by Yan Li, with the music adding an extra layer of continuity to the show). Boggess is also a fine actress and the triangle that she, Andrew Veenstra, and Helen Cespedes form is unforgettable.
This show is blessed, as well, with a flawless supporting cast, with especially good work by Darrie Lawrence, Deirdre Madigan, and Haviland Morris, in prominent roles. And then there is Boyd Gaines, who appears as both a shadow to Andrew Veenstra’s Archer, as well as being the all-knowing narrator of the play, and he seems to tower over just about everyone onstage. Gaines is almost ghostlike in his presence until pretty close to the end, when he finally becomes, in a beautiful bit of staging, part of the action of the story.
Director Doug Hughes does a magnificent job guiding “The Age of Innocence” to its wounding conclusion, as well as working to stunning effect with all his designers, including lighting designer Ben Stanton and sound designer Mark Bennett, who is also responsible for the ravishing original music in the show. “The Age of Innocence” at Hartford Stage is truly the epitome of opulence and elegance, as well as providing aching moments of heartbreak that can move one to tears.
“The Age of Innocence” continues performances at Hartford Stage in Hartford, CT through May 6, 2018. For tickets, please visit www.hartfordstage.org or call the box office at 860-527-5151.
Photo: The Company
Photo by T. Charles Erickson